The Guardian’s disclosure that the NSA is receiving millions of domestic phone records from Verizon – “including local telephone calls” -- shows just how far off course the Obama administration has drifted in the post 9/11 era. The once secret order published by the Guardian might be one way to keep us safe, but the question should be whether it's the right way.
It isn't. We need solutions that keep America America. We're getting a frightening glimpse into our government’s fascination with collections, a fascination that ultimately will leave us less safe by distorting intelligence investments. All these records -- Verizon might be just the tip of a secret iceberg -- need to be stored somewhere, and that’s going to be expensive for an intelligence community buffeted by budget cuts.
Every dollar spent squirreling away terabytes of telephone metadata is one less dollar spent on human intel operatives and analysts. History tells us those are the people who can keep us safe, especially if they’re surrounded by a vigorous media digging for facts.
It’s worth remembering that 9/11 didn’t happen because of a lack of dots. More than 40 articles in the Presidential Daily Briefs referenced Osama bin Laden in the first eight months of the Bush administration, according to the 9/11 Commission. One brief warned of “suspicious activity” that the FBI saw as “consistent with preparations for hijackings…”
The intelligence system was “blinking red” in the now famous words of then-CIA Director George Tenet. Neither he nor White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke managed to grab the administration by its figurative lapels and make it listen. By the morning of Sept. 11, our society’s last levers of power had gone unpulled: No one blew the whistle to Congress or to the media.
Policy makers love to say our country’s most important assets are its people and their professional relationships. That’s as true today as in 2001, but you wouldn’t know it by the administration’s priority on big data over people, and by the Justice Department’s targeting of the news media. The administration acts like the framers wanted a free media around just to rewrite press releases.
Here’s where we are today: The potential threats against Americans are diversifying, and yet the journalists who try to dig into those issues and the government’s responses are treated like the enemy. Meanwhile, inside the government, policy makers are relying on the same supply of analysts to make sense of increasingly complex and splintering threats.
Listen to Dawn Meyerriecks, the IC’s now-former acquisition chief: “We’re not going to hire more analysts…But in general, we’re planning on better leveraging the analysts that we have, and using technology to get more value out of the processing.” (Read more from her exit interview with reporters.)
An IC that can barely afford its analysts has managed to spend an undisclosed figure on new cloud infrastructures populated with collections like the metadata turned over by Verizon. It’s impossible to know for sure how much of the IC budget is soaked up by big data. By law, the community releases only its overall annual spending – $75.4 billion in 2012. But billions would be a good guess.
The Obama administration should remember that collections are not intelligence. It takes analysts to make sense of information; independent journalists and their sources to keep politicians and the American people focused; and wisdom at the top to remember the freedoms we’re all working for.